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Showing vulnerability is key, despite how hard it is

15 Oct 2020

Look in a dictionary and it will tell you that the definition of vulnerability is, “The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” In this light, it’s not surprising that most of us aren’t willing (or able) to be vulnerable.

I certainly wasn’t for the first 35 years of my life. I wanted to be the best at everything I did. Literally everything. And I didn’t want people to see any of my weaknesses. In fact, there were times when I’d go to relatively extreme lengths to stop people from seeing the real me. All of which, I subsequently worked out, was quite draining.  

Vulnerability at work

I see so many other people wrestling with the same problem. It’s why potential candidates struggle so much to answer my current favourite interview question, “Tell me something about you that makes you vulnerable, that you wouldn’t normally share in an interview.”

Their answers tend to fall into one of three camps:

1. Some candidates (about 10%) refuse to answer the question. Typically, these are the people who see vulnerability as an admission of weakness. In my experience, you don’t want these people on your team. You never get to know the real them and they don’t build very deep or trusting relationships with their colleagues. And because control is so important to them, they also struggle to deal with ambiguity and don’t like to admit when they’ve made a mistake.

2. Most candidates (about 50%) don’t really answer the question – at least not honestly. They answer with some kind of predictable interview response (their vulnerability is that they’re too hard on themselves or that they struggle to delegate). You probably don’t want these people on your team either.  

3. About 40% of people, though, are refreshingly open. They’re happy to talk about the challenges they’ve faced and what they’ve done about them. These are the people you should hire. They are the kind of people who are comfortable in their own skin and who build strong, trusting relationships with others. They also tend to be more compassionate and more open to challenge.    

The power of vulnerability, though, is much bigger than simply being a great team member. It impacts our health, our happiness and how we live our lives.

The challenges that stop us showing vulnerability

In almost every part of our lives, society has a brilliant way of making us feel like we’re not good enough. Everywhere we look, there are constant reminders that we’re not smart enough, popular enough, good-looking enough, thin enough, funny enough, rich enough, and so on. We end up living our lives through someone else’s idea of what ‘good’ looks like, rather than our own.

We live in a world where superficial perfection is all around us. None of us will ever match up to this imaginary standard so we all feel a bit inadequate. Some of us continue to strive for perfection (exhausting). And some of us learn to turn off our emotions so it doesn’t impact us – sadly chopping off your emotions at one end of the spectrum (to protect yourself) also chops off emotions at the other end of the spectrum (happiness).

Sadly, judging others by society’s expectations has become so normal that almost all of us do it, even to the people we love the most. Those of you who are parents will probably be able to think of times when you’ve behaved like this towards your own children. You want them to get straight As in their exams, to go to the best university, to get a ‘great’ job and generally excel at everything they do.  

It’s only when you take a step back and think about why you do this that you start to realise just how much you’re messing them up. Inadvertently (as most people want their children to be happy) your expectations create a sense that they’re not good enough. So your children end up hiding their weaknesses or pretending to be something they’re not.

All of which is a bit depressing.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. What better example to set than being vulnerable in front of your own children? It allows your children to see you for what you really are (not perfect) and it will encourage them to do likewise, rather than fighting to project a certain personality to the outside world.

It will allow them to stop living their lives based on someone else’s expectations. With the added bonus that because they’re happier in themselves they’re less judgemental of others (largely because, if they’ve worked out how to accept their own flaws, the chances are that they’ll accept the flaws in others too).

How to be vulnerable

There are a lucky few who seem comfortable shedding society’s expectations and showing vulnerability. They’re the people who seem to glide along in a constant state of happiness and contentment. But the thing to recognise is that these people weren’t born like this. They’ve just learned to understand, accept and be happy with who they are. And when that happens, vulnerability stops being a problem.

The key point is that being vulnerable starts with knowing yourself. We all need to hold the mirror up to ourselves (or get some help from others) and be honest about what’s really going on under the surface. Get comfortable with our flaws and learn to accept ourselves as wonderfully not-perfect.

Being vulnerable is a very difficult thing to do (at least at the start). But it’s so powerful if you get it right. You’re calmer, lighter and happy to make mistakes or do your own thing without worrying about what anyone else will say.

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